The night before meeting David Cronenberg, a man for whom the phrase “in the flesh” was made, I watched his 1986 remake of The Fly. Elements in the 71-year-old filmmaker’s first novel, Consumed (Scribner, 2014), had given me flashbacks to the body-horror classic, the way its images itched my veins as if instilling some poisonous truths, and though I didn’t always agree with these truths — truths about hubris, intellectual greed, the contagion of fame, and our Pandora-like relationship to the future — I also couldn’t unlearn them. Halfway through the movie, the leading femme’s ex-boyfriend turns to say, with the cartoonishly Waspy sarcasm so endemic to boyfriends of the period, “Thank you for making my most paranoid fantasies come true.”
Personally, and without any sarcasm, I have the same thanks for Cronenberg himself. A real, living visionary, he’s spent 40-some years lending credence and magic to our wildest fears and irrational desires. His allegories are dark as a city sewer, but never grim.
“People think, because of my films, that I had a terrible childhood,” says Cronenberg, grinning, “but it was lovely.” His bedside command of sickening material is, to me, evidence of a steady mind. I was alone on a post-season tourist island that night when I rewatched The Fly, and I was also completely safe, a feeling I wouldn’t have had with Lars Von Trier, or David Lynch, or another director to whom Cronenberg can reasonably be compared.
As with Von Trier’s early oeuvre, Hollywood is frenemy No. 1 in the pre-studio movies of Cronenberg, who was born in Toronto a little after the Depression and never left. Technology is frenemy No. 2. “I love having the latest new device,” he tells me, and maybe he loves it so possessively he wants to scare the rest of us away? Pregnancy, a hostile invasion, is another recurring shock. Games aren’t fun until someone gets hurt; insects reveal alien life to be closer than we had imagined; no man is safe from becoming machine. Though Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) turned the director into an overnight legend, the cool, eroticized violence of Crash (1996) made him a pariah in Canada, a critical lightning rod at Cannes, and a man whom Martin Scorsese was allegedly afraid to meet.
Two decades later, David Cronenberg is one of the least controversial figures in the culture. In person, he is comforting to talk to because he is so like his work: curious, obsessive, old-fashioned, and anti-nostalgic, with a simple way of articulating that which confounds. He is genuinely weird and erudite; he struggles to entertain. Cronenberg has long since declined to be either an auteur or a sell-out, having shrugged off his cultishness in the ’80s while simultaneously turning down movies like Top Gun and Star Wars. Instead, he chose to make accessible the stories that interest him specifically — no matter how schlocky or how cerebral. That a Cronenberg movie will always lose money at the box office, but that it isn’t for lack of wanting to make a hit, is what keeps him so easily beloved. (Populism without profit is the Canadian platonic ideal.)
While his 17th feature, Maps to the Stars (2015), plays to light adoration on the festival circuit, his novel — a professorial thriller that takes two journalists and lovers inside a rabbit warren of rare disease, erotic cannibalism, French academic intrigue, and the schemes of an unlikely dictator — is being taken seriously as a literary experience. Already dreaming his next three books, Cronenberg recently spent a day or two in New York, meeting his readers at libraries and events. He also met me, at the offices of his publisher, to talk about horror as reality, growing up in libraries, and the secret to excellent sex scenes, plus: why he might be the anti-Jonathan Franzen of novelists.
How are you?
David Cronenberg: I’m really good.
I’ve seen you before — of course without you seeing me — in Toronto, several years ago, in a conversation with Stephen King. And I was watching an old interview you gave for The Dead Zone, in which you said in passing, on your way to an unrelated answer, that you and King had the same idea of horror. So I was wondering: What was that idea?
DC: Well, I don’t really think about the genre of horror much. Obviously there are horrific elements in this novel, but I’ve never really meditated on horror. I haven’t made what I would call a horror film for a long, long time.
To me, the question of genre is a marketing question, it’s not a creative question. When I was writing this novel, I totally wasn’t a) thinking about any work that I had done before, including my early films, and b) contemplating genre, because as I say, it doesn’t really help me creatively. The process of writing the novel was as pure as it could be, which is to say — every time I make a movie, it literally is as if it’s the first movie I’ve ever made. Same with the novel. I had an interviewer recently say, “Was your novel influenced by your early films?” And I said, you’ve got it backwards! My movies don’t influence me, I created them.
Didn’t you also want to be a writer before you became a filmmaker?
DC: Yes, I aspired to be a novelist. My father was a writer, and writing seemed like a very natural thing for me to do. [Pause while I find the recording app on a second iPhone.] Do you want to start again?
No, it’s OK. I’m already recording on my iPhone, only I think it might die, and I want to feel safer. I’m trying to find the voice memo application, but nothing looks… You know, on an unfamiliar iPhone, it’s like being in someone else’s bedroom.
DC: Exactly. And it’s a new iPhone 6.
It’s a very Cronenbergian thing, because it anthropomorphize the device, the way these iPhone 6s bend under heat — have you heard?
DC: They don’t. That’s an urban myth.
Really? But I liked it so much!
DC: Well, I’m sorry, but it’s a complete lie. Apple sold 14 million phones and nine people complained that in their skinny jeans, under the force of their thighs, sitting for 18 hours or something, the iPhone got bent a little bit. It has nothing to do with the heat.
Are you an Apple fan? Everyone in Consumed uses Apple — and/or Nikon.
DC: I am. I have ordered an iPhone 6 Plus, so it’s coming from China and I’m tracking it like any nerd maniac.
The notion of an “embedded journalist” is very connotatively creepy, like a tick in the skin. Embedded journalists show up in The Fly, which I watched last night, and again in Consumed. More than any of the horror stuff, I found that relationship between writer and subject to be the novel’s meta narrative.
DC: It’s very interesting terrain, and it has shifted, of course, because of social media, which allows potentially billions of people to have access to anything you post, without any kind of filter sometimes, whereas in the past, any story required some form of mediation, even if it was just a sleazy magazine. Now if you find something sensational — and I’m noticing, are those actual tattoos on your fingers?
DC: Because Bruce Wagner, the writer of the book I adapted for Maps to the Stars, actually got a hand tattoo of the streets that are in the movie. It’s shocking to look at, because it’s so skeletal and stark.
You’re doing simultaneous publicity for Maps to the Stars and Consumed right now. What’s it like to toggle between two arenas?
DC: It’s very exciting and interesting, and very strange. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m talking about. But of course that may be normal for me.
One thing I found is that in Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore looks very beautiful, and she looks her age, compared to — well, we don’t need to compare her to other actresses. In Consumed, we see sex between two old people. I don’t want to say that it’s the last taboo, but the sexiness of and sex between older people is much less talked about, and far less shown, in the culture.
DC: And certainly I wouldn’t have written those kinds of sex scenes, say, 50 years ago, when I was a teenager. I thought I would publish my first novel when I was 21. But now, exactly 50 years later, of course I’m going to write about that!
To paraphrase the line about capitalism, it’s easier for a lot of people to imagine the end of the world than to imagine themselves old.
DC: Well, I’ve not had that problem. I can imagine both — at once. In the novel, I was really writing out of my own life, not my life experiences, but what I see. To go back to genre, well, if some of the novel is horrific, you have only to look around and see beheadings and torture and, you know, murder and bodies everywhere. I think I’m writing out of reality.
Or out of a horror at the state of reality?
DC: And also, with the novel, I was interested in having a literary experience. I wasn’t making the template for a movie. I directed an opera of The Fly in 2008, and people thought, For sure, Cronenberg will have videos and big screens and flashbacks on the stage. And I said, absolutely not. I want the full theatrical experience. That’s what I’m doing it. I’ve already made the movie; I want to work with what theatre is. It’s the same with the novel.
What is a literary experience?
DC: What I found is that writing a novel is totally different from writing a screenplay. A screenplay is a hybrid, restrictive form of writing in which the quality of your prose is totally irrelevant. In fact, you don’t want great prose. You want flat, ordinary descriptions of scenes, because the only thing that really matters in a screenplay is the dialogue and the narrative structure. The great screenwriters are almost illiterate.
In a novel, you’re really in people’s heads, and it’s a much more freeing form. You can be very discursive, you can go on a tangent and come back, and you can do interior or exterior monologues. You can’t do that in a movie, and directors who try are often pathetically reduced to doing scenes in which someone, usually in a voiceover, reads you the book of the movie you’re trying to watch.
Stephen King liked your adaptation [of The Dead Zone] and not Stanley Kubrick’s [of The Shining], which is a kind of award.
DC: But King was right. I think Kubrick actually didn’t understand that he was making a genre picture, that he was making a horror film. He tried to intellectualize it, to aestheticize it, and there were many scenes he totally screwed up. For example, there were scare scenes in which you’re waiting for a jump, for somebody to come out of the corner of the jump, you just felt it — and then he didn’t do it! And you just think, Stan, you blew that scene.
Because you would have made the jump.
DC: Well of course! Because you have to be honest with yourself about what it is you’re doing, and not pretend you’re doing something else.
With The Shining, I think [Stanley] Kubrick didn’t really want to be a horror filmmaker, so he tried to intellectualize the story. To me, that’s a way of condescending to the material. When I made The Dead Zone, I made a thriller with some horror-type overtones. I trusted the book. Kubrick didn’t accept what he was doing — or, possibly, he didn’t really understand the story. There were a couple of good scenes [in The Shining], a couple of good shots, but I don’t think it was a good movie, and Stephen doesn’t think so either.
If a director you admire wanted to make an adaptation of your movie, what would you say?
DC: At first I thought, of course I’m going to make a movie of my own book, because how many writers get that opportunity, and how many directors get to write? The two experiences are totally different. Rick Moody, who wrote The Ice Storm, once said that movies are in the third person, and novels are in the first person.
A novel must be so much more embarrassing to write than almost anything else. It’s like telling a stranger your dream!
DC: Exactly, but it’s that intimacy I love about novel-writing. With a movie, you’re watching on a screen that is much further away from you than a book is, or a Kindle is, when you’re reading. When someone says they saw my movie, I think they probably didn’t watch it alone, whether at home or in a cinema, but the first time someone said, “I read your book,” I was shocked. Exactly. It’s like someone plugged into my dream world. Whereas a film has so many different components, and so many people are involved. When you introduce a film, you go to the Cannes Film Festival with a group of people. Here, you’re sitting across from me, and you’re not asking me how it was to work with Robert Pattinson. You’re asking me how it was to work with my own head.
In Consumed, Nathan and Naomi are always reading and name-dropping writers, and Nathan himself is working on a book. Reading this novel felt like going through your library — your physical and your digital libraries.
DC: Yes, yes. You are. I have a rather large library in Toronto, because my father, in the Depression, owned a bookstore called The Professor’s Bookstore. He was selling things like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which nobody had time to read in a depression, so he went out of business and brought home all his stock. And so I grew up in a house full of books. You had to walk through corridors formed by stacks of books. A labyrinth of books.
Is there any forgotten form or medium for which you feel nostalgic?
DC: I’m not nostalgic, but I have a lot of Beta tapes. I always thought Beta was a better technology, but it lost to VHS. I was there when VHS lost to DVD and I was there when Blu-ray came in and beat DVDs. I’ve been there for all of it.
I do have some affection for typewriters, as you can see in my movie Naked Lunch, because my dad loved typewriters so much. He was the first person in Canada with an IBM Selectric. He was a gadget freak, just like me. In 1985 I wrote the script for The Fly on a Xerox 860 computer, which was a word processor, but it already had a touchpad, and it had a monitor that was vertical, so it was the size of a page. The Xerox 860 was very advanced, I think.
What are you reading right now?
DC: I’m reading JR by William Gaddis, and I’m still reading — endlessly reading — the Proust book, In Search of Lost Time, and I’m reading a few other things. I have about six books I’m reading at once. It’s always that way.
You have a multi-tab brain.
DC: I know there are writers who like to write on a computer that’s not connected to the internet, without any distractions, but I’m totally the opposite. I love having the internet right there. When it’s 3:00 a.m. and suddenly I need to know something about insects, am I going to wait for the library to open on Monday, park my car, go upstairs, find the book, and then find out it’s not the right book, and then take out another book? No.
Some writers, whose lives I guess aren’t hard enough, find that kind of process to be virtuous.
DC: I’m not virtuous at all. I am totally into whatever’s easiest. For research, at my age, you don’t want to spend too much time. The internet compresses time. If I want to write another three novels, I can’t spend any time in the library.
And do you want to write three more novels?
DC: Of course. I’m very curious to see what I would do. With this one, I had to work on it over a period of eight years — I’d leave it for a year, do a film, come back. This segmented way of working was very frustrating, because my sensibility was changing, and I never knew, when I came back to the novel, whether it would be any good. I’d love to write something start to finish and see how long it takes, and where it goes.
It’s good to hear that you keep changing at such a high rate. I worry about getting older and not being surprised anymore.
DC: You can surprise yourself. You definitely can. And it doesn’t mean that you have to undergo any kind of traumatic thing. I’ve never lost my curiosity about what the human condition is, and basically that is the subject of all art, is the human condition in all its various aspects.
And you still don’t believe in the afterlife.
DC: Absolutely not. Of course not.
Last question: What’s it like to work with Robert Pattinson?
DC: Sure, you can ask about that.
I’m kidding. How do you write such good sex scenes? It’s a very rare talent among writers who consider themselves literary.
DC: There was a critic once who said, and I think this is a wonderful compliment, that you can tell Cronenberg is good at sex by the way he does the sex scenes in his movies. It’s a little naïve, but there’s some truth in it. I do think that the directors who aren’t good with sex scenes are nervous, uptight, prudish, or easily embarrassed. Your experience of life goes into your work, and sex has never been a problem for me, either as a director or as a writer.
Or as a husband.
DC: You’d have to talk to my wife about that, but we’ve been together for, you know, 37 years, so it seems to be working OK.
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